- When Methodist Family Health Centers launched an asynchronous consumer-facing telehealth platform at the beginning of this year, they were more than happy to skip the video.
“It’s better for everyone,” says George Williams, MD, President of the Methodist Medical Group and Senior Vice President of the Methodist Health System, with which the 150-provider MFHC is affiliated. “People don’t have to get up and present themselves.”
“We wanted convenience,” he says, “not something cumbersome.”
The Dallas-based health system launched its Methodist NOW service on a store-and-forward platform developed by Zipnosis. It allows the consumer to log into an online portal and fill out a questionnaire. An MFHC clinician then reviews the data, sends and receives any follow-up questions through a chat feature in the portal, then responds in less than 10 minutes with a diagnosis and treatment plan, including – if necessary – a prescription sent to the patient’s pharmacy of choice.
Williams said MFHC staff looked at several telehealth options before deciding that a video-based platform would be too complicated – for both the patient and provider. They weren’t looking for a real-time platform like that used by Methodist’s Emergency Department, but a simple service for people suffering from the flu, an infection or some other nagging health issue.
“It’s not onerous,” says Williams. “The information we’re getting is very important, and it’s just what we need” to create a treatment plan.
“People really want the ability to speak to a doctor,” he adds. “We’re giving them that” without forcing them to go out of their way to see the doctor.
Williams says Methodist also wanted a branded service run by its own staff, not something leased out to a vendor with its own group of providers. It’s part of the health system’s ongoing consumer access strategy, which places a premium on quick and convenient access to a care provider from a desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone.
That convenience runs both ways. While the platform gives consumers the freedom to access the service at any time and place, Williams says the health system didn’t want to tie down its own staff to a call center or dedicated studio. The current model enables Methodist to fit the service into available workflows.
That’s one of the bigger draws of an asynchronous platform. Providers are able to gather in the data they need, fire off a few follow-up questions if necessary, then put together a treatment plan, rather than carve out time for an audio-visual visit that forces both patient and doctor to be in front of a video screen at a specific time.
“This model guides patients through structured, adaptive interviews developed from national best practice guidelines,” Kevin Smith, Zipnosis’ Chief Clinical Officer, said in a 2016 interview with mHealthIntelligence.com. “A systematic method also leads providers through curated pathways based on patients’ medical histories. Treatment options are limited to the most appropriate choices supported by evidence-based protocols, thereby reducing variability.”
“The focus in this case really is on the provider,” added Jon Pearce, Zipnosis’ co-founder and CEO. “With (store and forward technology), he or she really is providing evidence-based care.”
They key lies in identifying what can and can’t be treated by asynchronous telehealth. To that end, Methodist has drafted a list of more than 25 common health conditions that its providers can treat without the need for a virtual exam. The list ranges from pink eye and seasonal allergies to the flu.
“It’s been quite helpful for the flu,” says Williams, who notes Methodist NOW has seen two to three times more traffic in its first month of operation than administrators had expected. “What we’re offering is a way to see a doctor without having to go to the [Emergency Department]. Too many people go to the ED who don’t need to be there.”
Williams estimates about 80 percent of the visits to Methodist NOW are concluded with a diagnosis; the other 20 percent are deemed too serious to handle over a telehealth platform, with the consumer advised to seek in-person care.
While the service is seen as a means of providing more convenient care for the health system’s regular patients, Williams says he’s surprised at the number of first-time patients. Roughly two-thirds of the traffic seen during that first month, he says, are new to Methodist – an indication that the platform may be doing a good job in building the health system’s patient base and reputation and boosting the bottom line.
“It’s made us aware of the power of the technology,” he says.